This week in Washington: The House votes on budget reconciliation while the Senate ponders the Byrd Rule; Senate committees hold hearings on HHS Secretary-designate Becerra’s confirmation.
House Passes COVID Relief Through Budget Reconciliation
On February 27, the House of Representatives passed 219- 212 the American Rescue Plan, H.R. 1319, a sweeping $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, and sent it to the Senate. Two Democrats joined all of the House Republicans in opposing the legislation. The bill includes $350 billion in aid to states, cities, U.S. territories and tribal governments and increases funding for vaccine distribution and coronavirus testing among many other measures, such as nutritional assistance, housing assistance and $1400 stimulus payments to millions of Americans.
Prior to consideration, a provision in the Energy and Commerce Committee’s section of the package was removed. That provision allocated $1.8 billion to assisted living centers and other congregate settings to procure tests and other supplies and for vaccines for staff. An amendment offered in House Rules Committee by the Chairman of the House Budget Committee John Yarmuth (D-KY) was incorporated in the legislative text prior to consideration by the full House.
HELP and Finance Committees Hold Hearings with HHS Secretary-designate Becerra
On Feb. 23, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee (HELP) held a hearing to discuss health policy with the U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary-designate, Xavier Becerra. Republican members questioned his ability to lead the department because he is not a health professional. Despite arguments, many assume he will be confirmed. Issues raised ranged from 340B policies, organ transplant policy and the Affordable Care Act. While the HELP committee held a hearing, the committee does not vote on the nomination. The Finance Committee held its hearing on Feb. 24. Many members addressed drug prices, drug shortages and the need to address mental health issues as well as positions he took as California’s attorney general in lawsuits addressing contraceptive coverage and the Affordable Care Act. His nomination is expected to be reported favorably to the full Senate for consideration.
Senate Faces Byrd Rule Issues in Advance of Consideration of the American Rescue Plan
On Feb. 26, the U.S. Senate parliamentarian ruled that a provision in the American Rescue Plan does not meet the Byrd Rule test. In essence, the Byrd Rule says that in using budget reconciliation to pass legislation, provisions must have a direct impact – either positive or negative – on federal spending. Budget Reconciliation allows for the Senate to pass legislation with a simple majority and not the usual 60 votes required to pass legislation. The Byrd Rule may be raised against other provisions including subsidies for insurance provided through COBRA. The legislation can only pass in the Senate if all democrats stay united and Vice President Harris breaks the tie vote. Read more about the Byrd Rule here. The Senate is expected to wrap up consideration of the COVID legislation over the next two weeks. If provisions are stripped out of the House passed package, the House will have to consider the Senate version. The goal of the leadership is to have the bill before the President for signing by March 14.
Drug Importation Legislation Introduced
On Feb. 25, Sens. Grassley (R-IA) and Klobuchar (D-MN) reintroduced the Safe and Affordable Drugs from Canada Act, which would allow individuals to safely import prescription drugs from Canada. This legislation is cosponsored by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Susan Collins (R-ME), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Angus King (I-ME), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Gary Peters (D-MI). Companion legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives by Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA).
Read more on healthcare policy in McGuireWoods Consulting’s Washington Healthcare Update.